'Holy Warriors' review or 'Echo upon echo upon echo.'
Holy Warriors, David Eldridge
The Globe Theatre, 23rd July 2014
You’ll need to hold on tight with this one. David Eldridge’s new play, ‘Holy Warriors’, is a whirlwind of a show, demanding as it is exhilarating. At its heart is a fairly straight forward history play about the 12th century battle for control over Jerusalem, between Muslim leader Saladin and King Richard ‘The Lionheart’. But around this central story whirl centuries of turmoil and conflict; echoing battles for power and peace in the Holy Lands. We watch the wheel of history – the ‘whirligig of time’ – spin around and around and, devastated, see it slam back down in the very same spot it started.
The show begins with a silent dance from Saladin who swirls about the stage with his sword, elegantly slicing his weapon through the air. It is a moving ritual and one of the first reminders – in director James Dacre’s deeply symbolic and resonant production – of the latent connection between religion and violence. This theme is subtly mimicked in Mike Britton’s set, which is overlooked by a huge golden cross. It is a beautiful set piece but a useful and meaningful one too; whilst the cross is exquisite and spiritual it is also dangerous, broken and sharp at the bottom and looming over the actors, an executioner’s axe poised to fall at any moment.
The first half is relatively self-contained and essentially plots a battle between two men and two opposing personalities. Alexander Siddig’s Saladin is as smooth as John Hopkins’ King Richard is blunt, as sophisticated as Richard is brutal and bawdy. Both men, when they take centre stage, sit on the same gold throne. Endless negotiations fold in on negotiations, as Richard convinces the King of France to join forces and Saladin appeases his sons. What talk is involved in the build up to battle!
The endless discussions do begin to clog up a little, particularly for those in the audience with little knowledge of the holy crusades. On reflection, the fantasia could have kicked in a little earlier. But there are still a number of powerful motifs that reach the audience, even if all the words don’t quite stick. When Richard marries the Spanish princess, Berengaria of Navarre, the wedding dance has a gladiatorial feel, with its heavy stomps and rigid symmetry. Again and again, dancing and fighting – hope and destruction – unfold in the same space in the same arena.
The first half is brisk and engaging – but one can sense the audience concentrating a little too hard. It is only in the second half, when the bonds of histories are released and the fantasia element takes off, that the play really takes a hold of us.
The early fantastical sweeps are surprisingly hard work, as one attempts to absorb and process them in the same manner as the first half. In a whirpool of history, we watch Napoleon, Blair, Carter, Bush and numberless other leaders – many of which I failed to recognise – attempt to negotiate for control, or even peace, in the Holy Lands. There is little theatrical embellishment early on in this second half and I could have done with more obvious permission to ‘let go’.
It is only when Richard’s mother – Eleanor of Aquitaine (Geraldine Alexander) – delivers a mesmerising monologue about the ‘echo upon echo’ of conflicts in the Holy Lands that the play properly loosens up and the audience relaxes. We stop interrogating the play and allow it to wash over us. Eleanor delivers her monologue in a black dress on an empty stage and invokes age upon age of hopeless conflict. In a matter of minutes, we have rattles through centuries of battle until we land, with a thud, on the recent deaths of Israeli and Palestinian teenagers. The whole Globe audience holds its breath.
With the ‘present future’ ringing in our ears, we watch the battle between Saladin and Richard unfold - only with all the soldiers dressed in modern garb. Centuries and centuries layer on top of each other, until it becomes impossible to separate ‘now’ and ‘then’. It is agonizing to watch this tragedy unfold – to experience that familiar desire to cry out and halt the inevitable – and realise it is our lives, our ‘history’, that we are watching unfold in front of us.
Perhaps most striking of all is the mention of future generations, which peppers negotiations throughout the ages. When President Carter meets with Israeli Prime Minister Begin, he gives Begin a letter listing the names of his grandchildren; ‘And it is for your grandchildren and all the children of Israel that I ask you to make peace.’ Later, when Saladin and Richard try – unsuccessfully – to find a solution for control of Jerusalem, Saladin warns: ‘What a tragedy it is for our people when you or I cannot imagine a different future, even as we weigh the triumph and failures of our times.’ How sad and powerful it is to watch this repeated failure of imagination played out on our stage – and how heart-breaking it is to think that it deaths of the next generation, of young teenagers, that has sparked off this devastating battle once more.